Compared to other brain regions, the hippocampus shows considerable susceptibility to the aging process. Aging may impair the compensatory plastic response of hippocampal neurons following lesions, target loss, and/or deafferentation. We hypothesize that sprouting of dentate granule cell axons (mossy fibers) in response to target loss and partial deafferentation diminishes with age. We quantified mossy fiber sprouting into the dentate supragranular layer (DSGL) following intracerebroventricular kainic acid administration in young adult, middle-aged, and aged rats, using Timm's histochemical method. Mossy fiber ingrowth into the DSGL was assessed in the septal hippocampus at 2- and 4 months postlesion by measuring both the average width and the relative density of sprouted terminals. Kainic acid lesions produced degeneration of CA3 pyramids with sparing of CA1 and dentate granule cells in all age groups. Although young adults demonstrated robust DSGL mossy fiber sprouting, sprouting was significantly reduced in both middle-aged and aged rats. Compared to the case in young adults, the overall sprouting in middle-aged animals was reduced by 52% at 2 months and 50% at 4 months postlesion, whereas in aged rats the sprouting was reduced by 53% at 2 months and 64% at 4 months postlesion. Aged animals also showed an overall reduction of 28% compared to middle-aged animals at 4 months postlesion. Dramatically reduced sprouting in aged animals may represent a deficit in recognition of target loss and partial deafferentation by aged granule cells and/or an impaired up-regulation of factors that stimulate neurite outgrowth in the aged brain. J. Comp. Neurol. 414:238–254, 1999. © 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.